HL Deb 22 January 1998 vol 584 cc1605-7

3.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in the clearance of mines in Bosnia; and what support they are giving to this process.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, under the Dayton Agreement the responsibility for demining is that of the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mine clearance operations are being funded by a number of international organisations and they are co-ordinated by the UN Mine Action Centre. The UK has contributed £400,000 through the EU and £280,000 bilaterally to the international effort. We have also seconded military personnel to assist in the establishment of the UN Mine Action Centre, and the regional demining operation in Mostar.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Unfortunately, a good number of civilians have already been severely mutilated and maimed by these mines, including a fair number of Moslems. Are Her Majesty's Government able to offer any help, either through NGOs or through their own agencies, as regards the support and rehabilitation of some of these mine victims in Bosnia?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, clearly this is a tremendous problem. Indeed, about 50 civilians were killed and many others maimed during the last full year for which we have figures. However, there are about 1 million mines laying in the Bosnia area covering about 300 square kilometres. The process of clearing even the priority areas is very slow; only about 4.7 square kilometres have been cleared. The attention to victims is most important. We are providing assistance for the physically disabled and we supported capacity building projects with WHO and through other NGOs, such as Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee, in order to deal with the precise problems mentioned.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can the Minister say whether any specific action has been taken about the little round, hand-sized mines which are attractive to children and which can be floated down rivers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I understand it, such mines come under the general definition of anti-personnel mines. Therefore, they are covered by the Ottawa Convention which 120 nations signed in December. Of course, it is much more difficult in the Bosnia area to detect those mines than it is land-based mines. Nevertheless, they are part of the technical operation of determining which is under way.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister consider it reasonable to suggest that those who sold such mines, or the governments who assisted them to do so, should be asked to make a rather more significant contribution to their clearance?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, clearly the mines were laid by the protagonists of the catastrophe within the former Yugoslavia. The resources within that country for clearing such mines are relatively limited. The UK and other governments are providing substantial support to the clearance. The purpose of the convention to which I referred is to avoid a similar catastrophe happening elsewhere.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, as the presence in Bosnia of the United States is pretty certain for the next year or so, can the Minister say whether, as well as the mine clearing policy, there could also be some sharpening and focusing of the purposes of our presence there? Further, in that particular respect, is the Minister aware of the initiative with the United States Congress to try to get agreement about the treatment of war criminals and bringing them to justice?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the House will know, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has emphasised the importance of a sharper operation to bring such war criminals to justice. That is backed not only by the United States but also, most emphatically, by the European Union of which we now hold the presidency.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, in an earlier answer, my noble friend the Minister made a distinction between areas of Bosnia where mines are likely to be—or, indeed, are thought to be or probably are—and smaller areas where they are actually known to be. We know of a very interesting technology being developed in the United States to make that distinction more certain. When that comes into use, it will obviously be a great deal easier to get on with the only necessary job; namely, clearing the mines from where they are. Can my noble friend the Minister give the House any news about the bringing into action of such technology?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend is correct to say that much of the present mapping of the whereabouts of mines in the area is a little hit and miss. The technology is intended to improve the definition of priority areas. But even were we to be more precise in the priority areas as a result of that technology, we would still be talking about at least 100 square kilometres which would need to be cleared. According to the present rate of progress, that would mean about 5 square kilometres a year.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, in view of the enormous public interest in this important matter can the Minister say when the Government will ratify the Ottawa Treaty?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the question of ratification of that treaty will come before Parliament in due course when I hope and, indeed, expect that it will receive overwhelming support in both Houses.