HL Deb 13 May 1996 vol 572 cc318-22

2.40 p.m.

Lord Rea asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to their recently declared support for a worldwide ban on the use or export of anti-personnel mines, whether they will now state that no such weapons will be used by the British Armed Forces.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, our Armed Forces will not use our stock of non self-destructing anti-personnel mines operationally unless, in exceptional circumstances, Ministers are satisfied that their use is essential.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his reply, which I believe restates the Government's position. Is he aware that six countries—Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and the Philippines—have voted not only to ban the production and export of all types of anti-personnel mine but also to stop supplying their armed forces with these weapons? Is the Minister further aware that a group of American generals, including General Schwarzkopf—Stormin' Norman—recently wrote an open letter to President Clinton which questioned the need for the retention of such weapons by that country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we took account of the position of our allies in deciding our new policy. Those views vary considerably—from support of a total ban to countries which firmly believe they still need anti-personnel landmines for national defence. Clearly, it is for other countries to justify their own policies. Our decision reflects a balance between humanitarian goals and the needs of our Armed Forces. I am aware of the ongoing review in the United States. We remain in close touch with the Americans, and we shall study carefully any decisions they make.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, given that the recent review conference achieved only limited success, what specific steps will the Minister take to expedite an international ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel mines? What is the earliest realistic date by which that goal can be achieved?

Earl Howe

My Lords, if we want to achieve a total ban, as indeed we do, there is no alternative to international agreement. Any effective measures to reduce the dangers to civilians can be achieved only through broad international agreement involving those countries which produce, export and use anti-personnel landmines. We shall pursue that aim in a number of ways and through a number of fora. I believe that the good outcome of the UN weaponry convention review conference is a step in the right direction. There is scope to build on that by persuading those countries which give rise to the greatest concern. I cannot be of much assistance to the right reverend Prelate as to timing. I assure him that we shall do our best to achieve the outcome that we all want to see.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to place in the Library of the House a copy of any of the decisions made at the review conference? Does the agreement criminalise the use of landmines in internal conflicts? If so, are such offences subject to universal jurisdiction? Will the UK introduce legislation to give effect to the decisions of the conference?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am happy to give the noble Lord the assurance that a copy will be placed in the Library if that has not already been done. He is right that one of the positive results of the UN weaponry convention review conference was to extend the scope of the convention to civil wars, where, after all, most misuse has occurred. We regard that as a welcome step forward. As regards international sanctions against countries which break that condition, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind that the anti-personnel mine is probably the only weapon that can harm and kill after an armistice and cessation of hostilities, should not our Government concentrate, with Commonwealth countries, the US, and the countries of the former Soviet Union, on quickly achieving a complete ban on the use of such weapons? I appreciate that we cannot do it on our own, but I believe that we could obtain the support of the countries that I mentioned to see that this detestable weapon is abolished.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am in great sympathy with much of what the noble Lord said. We want to achieve a halt to the appalling catalogue of human suffering around the world caused by the irresponsible use of landmines. We shall, as I said, do all we can to introduce a global ban. That will require international agreement. As the noble Lord acknowledged, it is not the British Armed Forces which use anti-personnel mines irresponsibly. Only an international ban will reduce civilian casualties.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in his first Answer he referred to circumstances that might justify the use of such weapons. Can he name one such circumstance?

Earl Howe

My Lords, that must remain an operational matter. What we have said—it represents a strengthening of the rules to which we have adhered up to now—is that when our military commanders recommend the use of landmines our troops will not be allowed to use those landmines without ministerial consent, and that consent will not be given unless Ministers are satisfied that there is no alternative to the use of landmines. That is a positive step forward.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that we will not sell abroad any of our remaining stocks of these objects?

Earl Howe

My Lords, there has been a de facto ban on exports for many years now. No landmines have been exported from this country for some considerable time. We have said that that moratorium will now be extended indefinitely.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, what has been done to help with the clearance of mines?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we have extended considerable assistance around the world. We have contributed some £18.2 million to de-mining activities since 1991. We shall maintain our position as one of the world's leading contributors to such programmes.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, by exempting self-destructing mines are not the Government committing themselves to using such devices in the future? Will they not have to develop a whole new range of self-destructing mines?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we are looking for alternatives to mines. I do not believe that the first part of the noble Lord's question was to the point. We intend to destroy almost half of our current stockpile of anti-personnel mines as soon as possible, without replacement. That should reassure the noble Lord.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, have we yet cleared all the landmines from the minefields in the Falkland Islands?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no, some mines still remain in the Falkland Islands, although work there is continuing.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind that anti-personnel mines are a feature of runway-denial ordnance and the Government's answer to an earlier question, will the Government confirm that such ordnance is not allowed to be exported from this country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to the runway-denial weapon. That is classified as a mine, but it is not an anti-personnel mine. Its primary purpose is to deter, and, if necessary, to take out runway repair vehicles. We are reviewing at the moment the implications of the convention for all our mines. That weapon will come under the scope of the review we are undertaking.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I find it a little difficult to understand how the Government can support a world-wide ban on the use of landmines yet refuse to implement it themselves. Will the Minister give the House a categorical assurance that we shall not be importing any landmines to replace the stock that the Government are now destroying? If he cannot give that assurance, surely the Government's position is utterly hypocritical.

Earl Howe

My Lords, we intend to destroy almost half our current stockpile, and we have said that our Armed Forces will not be using anti-personnel mines in the future unless Ministers are satisfied that such use is essential. However, we need to retain the right to use anti-personnel mines in exceptional circumstances where there is no alternative in order to ensure the safety of our troops. That must remain a paramount consideration. I would not wish to rule out the import of anti-personnel mines in the future, any more than I would wish to rule out the purchase of such mines from British manufacturers.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is nothing hypocritical nor anything difficult about the issue, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone? Does he agree that the Government's attitude is entirely well founded? Is it right that we support an international convention but reserve the right to use such weapons if needs be in order to protect our troops until we get a ban?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Without doubt, our decision is a sacrifice in military terms. We have undertaken not to use such weapons other than in exceptional circumstances. In many respects, the undertakings we have given go beyond the international conference decisions of a few days ago. The UK Armed Forces are not currently using these mines anywhere in the world; if they do so, that use will be severely circumscribed and responsible.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, the Government are right to show concern for the needs of the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, to claim as part of their policy that they are backing a worldwide ban on such mines is a little disingenuous. Are we really going to wait until the last, most recalcitrant nation signs the convention before adopting any change?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no, not at all. There are various ways and fora through which we can press for an international ban. One of the conclusions of the UN weaponry conference was that annual reviews should provide a forum for the international community to monitor compliance with the convention. There are many other avenues we can pursue; for instance, resolutions at the UN General Assembly. This week the European Union is reviewing its joint action on landmines. Therefore, we can maintain pressure in an effective way.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that the Chief of the Defence Staff and the other chiefs of staff accept entirely the arrangements he has outlined to the House today; that is, insisting on ministerial control on the tactical and other use of mines?

Earl Howe

My Lords, yes. Ministers will take decisions based on expert advice. I believe it is right that Ministers should take the final decision.