HL Deb 29 October 2001 vol 627 cc1169-70

2.53 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to avoid further noncombatant casualties from air attacks in Afghanistan.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we very much regret any non-combatant casualties. We fully understand worries about possible injury to civilians, but while bin Laden remains at large the risk to innocent people throughout the world continues. Military action inevitably carries risks. It is impossible to eradicate these totally, but I can assure your Lordships that every possible care is taken to minimise civilian casualties by the most rigorous selection of military and terrorist targets.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that the American air force has probably killed more women and children than any other force in the world? Our association with this policy is in itself to be regretted. Is it not the case that the more noncombatants killed or injured, the stronger becomes the case for abandoning the current policy and returning to one of negotiation?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, when my noble friend refers to the slaughter of women and children, my mind—and I suspect the minds of most noble Lords—returns to the events of 11th September when any number of women and children, and other groups of innocent people, were slaughtered without mercy. Throughout the whole of this operation, that is the simple fact that needs to be remembered by everyone.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, while we on these Benches support the Government's objectives in Afghanistan, will they ensure that they continue to give great clarity to them? While I very much regret the horrors of war and the inevitable casualties that it brings, does the Minister agree that wars are not won without the appropriate weapons? To adopt any other measures would place our own Armed Forces in jeopardy and danger.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I agree with the thrust of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. I should like to restate how important it is at this time that there is such support from the opposition parties in both Houses of Parliament. The noble Lord asked about the clarity of objectives. I can do no better than to remind the House of what the Secretary of State said at the press conference this morning, which many will have seen live. He said: Our objectives are to bring the chief suspects behind the 11th September atrocities to account; to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan; and to prevent that country ever being used as a base for global terrorism again". We can all say "Amen" to that.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Does the Minister accept that those of us who support the proportionate use of force and recognise that it is not possible to negotiate with the current Taliban regime nevertheless feel that the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan is not a proportionate use of force?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, this point was raised by his honourable friend the Liberal Democrat spokesman in another place during the Statement on Friday. Cluster bombs have been used, but only in a limited number and against carefully selected and legitimate targets. Five such targets have been attacked. One was a terrorist training camp and the others were Taliban military positions. The cluster bombs used are armed with bomblets designed primarily for use against vehicles and buildings, which explode on impact. I reiterate—I am sure the noble Lord will agree—that the difference between the coalition against terrorism and the terrorists is that the coalition against terrorism takes every possible step to avoid civilian casualties of any kind, whereas the objective of the terrorists, as we saw on 11th September, is to maximise the number of innocent victims.