HL Deb 17 October 1995 vol 566 cc668-71

2.53 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What decisions took place at the review conference on the Inhumane Weapons Convention concerning any adverse humanitarian and developmental effects of land-mines; what recommendations they put forward at the conference for future control of land-mines; and whether any changes in the convention are intended as a result.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we have, with our western allies and partners, made a series of proposals to the UN Inhumane Weapons Convention, which would significantly strengthen its Protocol II on land-mines. We are very disappointed that consensus on such changes was not achieved at the session of the review conference which has just taken place in Vienna. The main obstacle was the unwillingness of some countries to negotiate effective, tighter restrictions on land-mines.

Lord Judd

My Lords, is the Minister aware that to all who work with the organisations concerned with the grim human consequences of land-mining, as I do, the news of this delay will come as a profound disappointment? Does she accept that it is estimated that during the 11 weeks of the conference alone a further 1,600 victims were killed or maimed, and that land-mining frequently continues to render agricultural development impossible? Has the Minister seen the United Nations Secretary General's calculation that at the present rate of laying and clearing land-mines, two or more decades are added each year to the time required to complete clearance? Will she be assured that she has the full support of this House in everything she can do to keep this issue as a top government priority? Will the Government give a lead by banning the export of all anti-personnel mines?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I do express our profound disappointment at what happened at the 11-week conference. There is no question that we worked extremely hard to get agreement to the proposed stringent technical standards for self-destruction mechanisms and detectability. The failure to reach agreement shows the difficulties or actually achieving effective measures. I have to say that a total ban at this stage is unrealistic. The noble Lord is right in saying that there are more and more victims. It is very sad that developing countries like Mozambique, Angola, Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan, possessing land that could be returned to agricultural use, with the exception of Vietnam, were not represented at the conference. Those countries might have been the ones that could have changed the minds of the countries which resisted our proposals.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that no British companies are at present involved in research or the development of land-mine systems or their remote delivery systems?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot go into the details of what every single company is involved in. It is more than 10 years now since this country exported anti-personnel land-mines. Therefore, I would have thought that it would be rather negative spending to get involved in such research as the noble Lord mentions.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether any progress has been made in developing a technology to find the plastic land-mines which up to now have defied conventional detection means?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am aware of some progress that has been made, but I cannot recall the detail. I shall write to my noble friend.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the anti-personnel elements in the runway denial ordnances used by the Royal Air Force are to be stripped out of those weapons in order to prevent the maiming and destruction of human beings some time after the delivery of those weapons?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, to begin with, a runway is not an ideal place for any person to wander. However, I take the point which the noble Lord is making when he says that, for certain reasons, such weaponry has been used in times of war. They were no doubt used during the Gulf conflict, but I do not have the details to hand. I repeat that we are out to obtain an end to the trade in non-self-destructing and non-detectable anti-personnel mines. We are also out to make sure that there will be a total ban on these munitions, including a ban on the export of all anti-personnel weapons to countries which have not ratified the weaponry convention. That will cover the vast majority of cases. But we need progress from those countries who baulked at making a decision on Protocol II in the past 11 weeks.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, while acknowledging the endeavours of the Minister, I ask him whether the term "land-mines" includes not only anti-tank mines but that sometimes more horrible weapon, the anti-personnel mine.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, they are indeed extremely dangerous. It is on the clearance of the anti-personnel mines that the Overseas Development Administration has increased its spending from about £360,000 four years ago to nearly £6 million in the past financial year. We continue to support the Halo Trust and the Mines Advisory Group, as well as many other groups who are doing such important and very brave work overseas.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House which were the countries principally responsible for frustrating the work of the conference?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I do not believe that it is very productive to start pointing fingers. However, they are both big countries and not exactly our friends in the past.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, did I hear the Minister aright in saying that it was not realistic to ban the export of these devilish devices? Would she expand on why it is unrealistic for this country to give that kind of moral leadership in banning these mines?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord will recall that a number of international borders have been policed by having mines. I think particularly of the border between Finland and Russia, but those mines have been fenced and their placement is known. As I said, a total ban is unrealistic at the present time. Of course, the practical approach is to get the broadest possible international agreement, with effective measures that will reduce the dangers to civilians. That includes measures to restrict those long-lived dumb mines which are the most dangerous to civilians and which are still being planted, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said in his supplementary question.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a great deal of what she has said will bring much comfort and will be widely approved by those who take a stand against such awful weapons? However, is she aware that her continued reference to self-destruct mines weakens the case of the Government against achieving an outright ban? Does she not agree that if she says that self-destruct mines are okay and that non-self-destruct mines are not, that opens the door to a continuing trade in such mines throughout the world because non-self-destruct mines are cheaper and there is therefore every encouragement for governments who wish to use such weapons to continue to buy those mines? Will the Minister reconsider the matter and move forward towards achieving a total ban on all anti-personnel land-mines?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I know that a total ban is attractive, but if we hold out indefinitely for a total ban on all land-mines we will not be taking the preventive action that we could take in the shorter term. We have reviewed all the difficulties of getting international agreement. I know that it would be marvellous for Britain (or any other country) to take unilateral, virtuous and responsible decisions—it might make Members of the Opposition as well as the Government feel better—but it would have little practical effect. Our fundamental priorities are totally unchanged. We want a much strengthened Protocol II with tight technical and other restrictions which will reduce the dangers to civilians from the indiscriminate use of land-mines while still permitting the legitimate use in defence terms of self-destruct mines under tightly controlled circumstances.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is Britain still exporting such weapons?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord must have been occupied with another subject when I said that we have not exported such weapons for more than 10 years.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have been listening with absolute awe and admiration to the way in which she is determined to have land-mines banned in all countries? Is it her intention to bring the same determination to bear on the French Government to stop their nuclear testing?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that has absolutely nothing to do with land-mines. However, I am delighted to say that we were supported by the French in our discussions over an 11-week period.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I think that the Minister said that £6 million is now being spent on research into the control and destruction of such mines which represent a worldwide problem. Does she think that that is enough?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is not a question of how much money is spent; it is a question of the application of that money to the continuing worldwide manufacture of such mines although many countries, like us, no longer export them. It is a question of targeting and of making sure that the technology is appropriately addressed.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, does the Minister know why the countries she mentioned earlier did not attend the review conference? Was it through lack of funds?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am quite certain that if they had wanted to attend, they would have known my phone number and rung up.

Lord Judd

My Lords, taking into account what the Minister said about the lack of urgency at the conference, does she agree that it might be a good idea to reconvene the conference in Cambodia or a similar country so that the participants are forced to face the reality? In view of the Minister's undoubted commitment to this issue, will she reassure the House about the purpose of the top-level conference which is planned at Shrivenham next month at which delivery systems are to be discussed? Can the Minister assure the House that that will in no way either directly or indirectly accentuate the nightmare with which we are concerned this afternoon?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, on the noble Lord's last question about the Shrivenham conference, I shall make inquiries. I cannot give him any direct answer at the moment. In view of the noble Lord's suggestion that we might ask for such a conference to be hosted by one of the countries still beset by the horrors of mines, it is a thought, but I think that we might see better attendance in a rather more centrally placed country with better airline contacts.