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House of Commons

Friday 10 July 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Landmines Bill

Order for Second Reading read.--[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

9.34 am

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In the time that it will take us to complete the Second Reading of the Bill, five people, somewhere in the world, will become casualties of landmines. Two of them will be killed; the other three are likely to be maimed for life. It is likely that they will be civilian and poor, and they will have already endured the terror and the destruction of war. One among them may well be a child, who will never run again because of a moment of tragedy at play. Their story is told across the world hundreds of times every week. About 60 million landmines lie scattered in 70 countries. They remain long after the fighting has stopped, and cause suffering out of all proportion to their possible military value. Hundreds of thousands of refugees cannot return to their homes because of landmines, and people cannot farm their land without risking death. Many are forced to take that risk simply to feed their families or to gather water and firewood to keep their families alive. After the trauma of war, landmines pollute the peace.

When the Government came to power, one of our first acts was to ban landmines unilaterally. We said that there was to be no more trade, no more transfer or production of landmines and a moratorium on their use. We said that stocks of landmines held by the British military would be destroyed and that we would do everything that we could to work for a wider ban. We have kept those promises: we have destroyed half the stockpile of the 1 million landmines that we inherited from the previous Government. By the end of this year, we shall have destroyed three quarters of that stockpile.

As far as we are aware, no other nation has done as much to destroy its stock of landmines. We played a leading role in the negotiations that led to the Ottawa convention, and we signed it at the first opportunity. Britain helped to draft the Ottawa convention, so it is entirely fitting that we should help to bring it into force. That is why the House is sitting today: if we pass the Bill, Britain will be among the first 40 countries to ratify the convention and to bring it into legal force.

I say to the House and to the Opposition that the Bill gives full effect to the terms of the Ottawa convention. Clause 2 prohibits British service men, or any other

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British citizen, from using, developing, producing, possessing or exporting a landmine. It also prevents them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone else to do those things. Nor is this a token offence; conviction under clause 2 brings with it liability to a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has been expressing concern about the provisions of clause 5. Let me help him by explaining its limited purpose. Clause 5 does not provide British service men with any loophole to take part in the deployment of landmines. British forces will be instructed in their rules of engagement for any exercise or operation that they must not use, possess, transport or handle landmines. Clause 5 provides British service men with a shield against unreasonable prosecution because they took part in a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation exercise in which American forces deployed landmines. Without clause 5, any British Army officer present at a NATO planning meeting who heard that American forces taking part may possess landmines would be obliged to say that he must leave the meeting, or would render himself liable to a prison sentence of 14 years. I cannot believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to put our service men in that position. If he presses that point, he will effectively be arguing that it is impossible for Britain to implement the Ottawa convention without withdrawing from the NATO integrated command.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): To avoid any doubt, let me make it clear that that is not the Opposition's position. We are saying that clause 5 is inconsistent with the convention. If the Foreign Secretary had woken up earlier to the need for provisions such as clause 5, he would have amended the convention accordingly. Did he make any attempt to do so?

Mr. Cook: Clause 5 is wholly consistent with the Ottawa convention. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants proof, I can tell him that our provision for British service men is similar to that made by the Government of Canada, who were the driving force behind the convention and who would certainly do nothing to undermine it. It is humbug that the Conservatives who, in power, kept their distance from the convention, should now complain that the Bill does not go far enough. If, in government, they had taken the line that we took at the general election, the Ottawa convention might have been completed earlier. The Opposition have promised us their help in passing the Bill. It would be warmly welcomed if we could fulfil what we understood to be an agreement between both Front Benches to achieve our shared commitment that Britain should be among the first 40 countries to ratify the convention.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): The Government will have the help of the Liberal Democrats in ensuring that the Bill passes all necessary stages today.

The Attorney-General, who often intervenes on matters of this sort, not for the Government, but for the guidance of the whole House, is present today. Is the Secretary of State telling us that the Attorney-General advised him that the mere presence of a British officer at a NATO planning meeting could be a contravention of the Bill's criminal law provisions?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's assistance. I can assure him that the

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Law Officers concurred with everything in the Bill. The particular point to which he referred has had considerable discussion. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will make his own position clear if he wishes to do so, but I speak with the full authority of the Government, and with the full support of the Law Officers.

The Attorney-General (Mr. John Morris): I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend--[Laughter.] My hon. Friends encourage me to give way more often to such interventions.

Our discussion of clause 5 highlights the serious problem of ensuring that every country bans landmines. The convention is not yet a global ban. There are countries that have not signed it, including some of the largest producers and exporters of landmines. We are working hard to bring those countries on board. A global ban must be exactly that. We are working in forums such as the conference on disarmament in Geneva to bring in others step by step. A limited, but useful, first step would be to have every country sign up to a ban on the export of landmines.

By passing the Bill today, the House will send a clear message from Britain to countries yet to join the international crusade against landmines. The House will send a clear message, too, to all who live with the threat of landmines. The Ottawa convention does not just ban production and use of landmines, but mandates signatories to help remove landmines, and to look after victims of landmines not removed in time.

A landmine costs only a few pounds to produce, but on average, the same landmine will cost several hundred pounds to clear. Britain is helping the worst-affected countries to clear landmines. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has committed Britain to doubling its annual expenditure on demining. The British Army's mine and training information centre has trained more than 2,000 workers from countries in which landmines have been laid. It has also trained workers from British non-governmental organisations that work in those countries. The House will wish to record its appreciation of the courage and dedication of our soldiers, and of the staff of NGOs, such as the Red Cross, who have worked hard so that the people of other countries may be freed from fear of landmines.

Our century has taught us many lessons. We have learnt that humanity can be capable of the most evil and cruel acts. We have learnt, too, that humanity can look away from suffering. However, we have also learnt that humanity can rise above cruelty and blindness. Sometimes, humanity can decide that something is wrong, and can demand action to stop it. It has done so in the case of landmines.

Many people and many organisations have played a part in awakening the conscience of the world to the casualties of landmines. The Nobel peace prize given to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was a well-deserved recognition of its determination. All hon. Members will be aware from their postbags of the immense contribution made by Diana, Princess of Wales

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to bringing home to many of our constituents the human costs of landmines. The best way in which to record our appreciation of her work, and the work of NGOs that have campaigned against landmines, is to pass the Bill, and to pave the way towards a global ban on landmines.

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