HL Deb 14 November 2001 vol 628 cc561-4

2.48 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy on the use of cluster bombs in operations against Taliban terrorists.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the cluster bombs used in Afghanistan have not been prohibited by any treaty or convention. They are employed only against legitimate terrorist and military targets where they are the most effective weapon to attack the target concerned.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. While the most effective weapon should of course be used against the Taliban, if cluster bombs are used would they contain self-destroying mechanisms to prevent them becoming landmines in the future, scattered in a way that can cause serious injury to civilians?

Lord Bach

My Lords, there are failure rates for the bomblets that are in cluster bombs. The manufacturer of the UK's cluster bomb—the RBL755—estimates the failure rate of the bomblets released from that bomb to be 5 per cent. We do not have up-to-date figures for the cluster bombs that the United States has been using in Afghanistan. The noble Lord will know that British forces have not themselves dropped any cluster bombs in Afghanistan.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, in view of our experience in the Gulf War—namely, that the longer a conflict lasts, the more difficult it becomes for the different partners to stick together—does the Minister agree that this conflict has reached the stage where both cluster and "daisy cutter" bombs are so inaccurate and dangerous that such weaponry no longer provides a viable option for the future?

Lord Bach

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the right reverend Prelate, I am afraid that I cannot agree with him. Without the use of such bombs, along with other weapons, does any noble Lord in the House believe that Mazar-i Sharif or Kabul would have fallen by now? The falling of those cities means that those who live in them are no longer controlled by the Taliban, with the risks that that control posed to their lives and also with the total lack of freedom. I must tell the right reverend Prelate that we shall use whatever weaponry is necessary to ensure that we meet the objectives of this war, not the least of which is to protect, in the future, any British troops who may be in Afghanistan.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a study made in February last year of the use of cluster bombs concluded that an immediate ban would be inappropriate due to their proven utility and limited scale of use when compared with the use of landmines? Is he also aware that our own troops would be put into great danger if we did not use cluster bombs to defeat the enemy?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I was not aware of the study to which he referred, but I shall ensure that I take note of it. So far as concerns his second point, of course it is right that if British or coalition troops are to operate on the ground in Afghanistan, the priority must be their protection and safety. That is a matter that the Government will always bear in mind.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, if British personnel are to be used on the ground in Afghanistan, will the Minister consider implementing further training to deal with cluster bombs? British personnel have already been killed by unexploded cluster munitions in Kosovo.

Lord Bach

My Lords, of course full training will be given to members of the British Armed Forces, as is always the case.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is rather untidy to refer to cluster bombs as one kind of munition? Does he agree that the two main weapons currently being used in Afghanistan are the CBU 87, which casts out bomblets that look like cans of cola and thus might attract children to them, and the CBU 89, which scatters mines over a large area? Can the Minister confirm that the latter bombs contain a self-destruct device which can be used to destroy them before a civilian on the ground is injured?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question and for his expertise in this area. I can tell him that the following cluster munitions have been used in Afghanistan: the air-guided munition, 154 joint standoff weapon; the cluster bomb unit CBU 87, to which the noble Lord referred; and the CBU 103. Neither the CBU 89 nor the CBU 104 GATOR bomb has been dropped over Afghanistan. The latter two can be considered to be anti-personnel landmines.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, one of my abiding memories of a past visit to Afghanistan is the scourge of landmines. It is estimated that some 10 million unexploded landmines are buried in the country. Will Ministers take the opportunity to factor that problem into their development programmes, as time permits?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we certainly shall do so. As the noble Lord has illustrated, many dangers exist in Afghanistan, not least from the thousands, if not millions, of anti-personnel mines that have been planted by warring parties over 20 years. We are committed to a long-term process of reconstruction in Afghanistan and we are considering ways of demining and then disposing of unexploded ordnance, which would form part of that process. Thus, the answer to the noble Viscount's question is yes.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a failure rate of 5 per cent for any British munition is far too high for the safety of our troops and the effectiveness of our operations? What is being done to improve the rate of burst to a satisfactory level?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as with all weapons, every effort is made to ensure that they perform as safely as is possible. I have given the House the best figures from the British manufacturers. Of course we shall do all that we can to ensure that weapons become even safer. However, if from time to time we did not use such weapons, the results would be infinitely worse, both for the citizens of Afghanistan and for the coalition troops.