HC Deb 13 December 1999 vol 341 cc14-5
11. Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

What discussions he has had with his United States counterpart about that country's use of cluster bombs in Kosovo; what representations his Department has received on the use of cluster bombs; and if he will make a statement on his Department's policy on the future role of cluster bombs. [100963]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I have had no discussions with the United States Defence Secretary on this subject.

The Ministry of Defence has received a number of inquiries from members of the public, as well as from hon. Members on both sides of the House, about the use of cluster bombs during the campaign over Kosovo. Within our international obligations, the United Kingdom's armed forces retain the right to use the most effective weapons systems available. Consequently, should there be a proven need to use cluster bombs in the future, we would do so. Denying ourselves the most appropriate weapons would not help to end conflicts quickly; it could also put our armed forces at greater risk of harm.

Mr. Cohen

Is the Secretary of State aware that cluster bombs used during the Kosovo conflict were dropped from a height of 15,000 ft, although they had been designed to be dropped from a much lower level? Did that not increase the number of bomblets that did not explode on hitting the ground, jeopardising the local population and, in effect, becoming land mines? Many hon. Members, including me, felt that military action over Kosovo was justified, but surely the use of cluster bombs in that way has put the allied forces on very shaky moral ground internationally. Will the Secretary of State reconsider the use of such weapons in all future conflicts, and discuss it with all our NATO allies—including the United States—so that cluster bombs are not used in the same way again?

Mr. Hoon

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern, but, in a previous ministerial capacity, I examined the Ottawa convention very carefully, and there is no doubt that, as a matter of international law, a cluster bomb cannot be defined as a land mine in either the spirit or the letter of the convention. Given that there is no international pressure for the expansion of the convention to cover cluster bombs, or to change the definition of a land mine to include them, I cannot accept my hon. Friend's argument.

Let me emphasise that KFOR and, significantly, British forces have been extensively engaged in clearing some 7,400 unexploded cluster-bomb munitions, as well as more than 6,100 Serbian anti-personnel mines and more than 3,400 Serbian anti-tank mines. British forces and KFOR are working hard to ensure that Kosovo is safe for its citizens.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the realities on the ground? The failure rate of cluster bombs is some 5 to 10 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of finding effective weapons systems; this weapons system is clearly failing, and is endangering the lives of those whom it was designed to protect. Surely, in such circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman can start thinking along the lines of an ethical defence policy.

Mr. Hoon

In fact, the failure rate is around 5 per cent.

As I said in my answer to the original question, we must ensure that we use effective munitions, not only to shorten conflicts but, crucially, to prevent our forces that are engaged in international humanitarian peacekeeping acts from being put at greater risk than they would be otherwise. That is why we must use the most effective weapons available to us, within our international obligations.