MoD lobbies to keep 'smart' cluster bombs (UK)
The British government is deeply divided over its policy on cluster bombs on the eve of international negotiations about a ban, the Guardian has learned.
The split sets the Ministry of Defence, which wants to retain two types of cluster munitions in the British armoury, against Downing Street and the Foreign Office, which want to honour Gordon Brown's pledge last year "to work internationally for a ban" on those weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.
An international conference on cluster munitions - shells or rockets which contain several smaller bombs - begins on Monday in Dublin. Officials said it was unlikely British divisions would be resolved by then. Instead, they hope the position taken by European allies could throw up a workable compromise.
Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, told the Guardian: "There is an internal discussion going on in the UK as we try to maximize our offer for the [Dublin] negotiation." However, the former UN deputy secretary-general admitted being "uncomfortable" about a compromise that would leave some cluster bombs in the UK arsenal.
"The source of my discomfort is that I'm used to being able to get on my UN high horse and beat up countries about having clean, clear positions on this," said Malloch-Brown. "I'm now caught in the fact if you are a national government there are real issues you have to work through to get the best position you can."
In briefings to journalists, the MoD stressed the conference was not aimed at a total ban, as some governments and humanitarian groups have urged, but at eliminating only those that cause unacceptable civilian casualties.
Defence officials point out that last year Britain discontinued the use of "dumb" cluster munitions which could not be directly targeted and did not self-destruct. They insist the two remaining cluster weapons in the armoury are designed to minimize harm to civilians.
They include the M85, an Israeli-designed artillery weapon with "bomblets" designed to self-destruct, which British troops used in Basra during the invasion of Iraq. According to the MoD, they made a "direct contribution to saving the lives of UK service personnel".
The other is the M73 rocket, which contains nine submunitions, and is fired from pods from Apache helicopters or Harrier jets. Foreign office officials insist the M73 is non-negotiable but suggest the continued use of the M85, which Israel used in southern Lebanon last year, causing heavy civilian casualties, was a matter for negotiation. The MoD would fight hard against giving it up.
Some of the prime minister's advisers believe there is no such thing as a "smart" cluster munition and that both should be banned. "They're in disarray. No one knows what to think," said Simon Conway, the director of Landmine Action and the co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, a pressure group pressing for a ban.
The Dublin conference is due to end with an agreed text on May 30, but governments will have until December to sign it. British officials said extra time might be needed to resolve internal divisions in Whitehall.
Von: 17.5.2008, www.guardian.co.uk, by Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour