Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here – and I would like to thank the All Party Parliamentary Group for its excellent work on the explosive weapons agenda to date.
I’m delighted that the group has reformed for this Parliamentary term – and I congratulate Roger on his appointment as Chair. I very much look forward to working with him and his fellow Group members over the coming years.
It is imperative that we continue to work together – and do all we can to combat the devastating impact of explosive weapons on civilians. And my message today is this: the key to greater protection for civilians lies not in new measures – but in greater compliance worldwide with existing international agreements and international humanitarian law.
Now, the use of explosive weapons against civilians is an issue with which – regrettably – I am all too familiar. I spent six years in the British Army with the Royal Green Jackets. Having served in Bosnia and Iraq, I have seen the tragic effects of these weapons on civilians.
So, I know what an ugly business war is.
But unfortunately, there are times when war becomes unavoidable. And when it happens, those involved assume a heavy responsibility – not only in considering the type of weapon to deploy, but the way in which it will be used – and the targets it will be used against.
Since ancient times, warfare has been subject to principles and customs. International humanitarian law is clear that:
- There is a general prohibition on the deliberate targeting of civilians.
- That it is imperative to distinguish between civilians and combatants in warfare.
- And that the use of weapons or methods of warfare that will cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering is illegal.
These rules apply in all circumstances of warfare about the duty to prevent suffering of civilians in conflict – whatever the causes, whoever the combatants, wherever the battlefield. That includes using explosive weapons responsibly to avoid civilian casualties.
CHANGING FACE OF WARFARE
But the nature of war is changing.
No longer is it simply States fighting States. Today, we are seeing an increase in non-State actors – terrorist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram, fighting their own and other governments.
These groups also bring with them different tactics – the use of improvised explosive devices is increasingly becoming the preferred method of attack.
Wars are becoming more asymmetric as other States support certain groups in these conflicts. Just look at Syria.
And civilians are becoming more embroiled.
They are not only victims of terrorist groups and the weapons they use. They are becoming the weapons themselves – with men, women and children used as suicide bombers.
LEGACY OF OLD CHALLENGES
And we are dealing with this new type of war while still coping with the legacy of more conventional wars.
Cluster munitions, anti-personnel mines and other explosive remnants of war remain scattered throughout some countries – posing a continued threat to civilians as they go about their daily lives.
The International Community has made great progress in preventing and further controlling the use of these weapons.
International conventions – on Cluster Munitions, Anti-Personnel Mines and Certain Conventional weapons – not only seek to control or prevent the use of such weapons in future, but also focus on eradicating stockpiles, clearing explosive remnants and victim assistance.
KEY MESSAGE: WE NEED IMPLEMENTATION, NOT NEW LAWS
The UK is a State Party to all of these, as are many other States. But I go back to what I said at the beginning – the real issue here is compliance with these conventions and wider international humanitarian law.
True – not all States are party to these conventions – the UK and all other State Parties continue to work to bring others into the fold – although this will not be achieved overnight.
I also recognise that states have legitimate security needs – but this must never come at the cost of civilian lives.
Everyone is bound by international humanitarian law – which is unequivocal.
So it is greater compliance with international humanitarian law that should be seen as our immediate challenge. If everyone complied, it would prevent harm to civilians, just as it was designed to do.
We have all heard calls from groups, individuals and other States for new laws to further regulate new and existing weapons. And while I stand here in possibly one of the most famous buildings in the world for making laws, what I’m about to say may sound strange:
We do not need new laws.
To soften the blow to our hosts, the laws we already have are fine.
No matter the weapon, how it is used, or who uses it – international humanitarian law already makes the deliberate targeting of civilians illegal.
ISIL, will not stop their brutal acts if we, the International Community, introduce a newconvention, treaty or legal framework.
So there is little to be gained in using up political, economic and personal resources and time in negotiating the wording of new frameworks or laws. Even if we did, compliance with them would still be the issue.
UK ACTION ON IMPLEMENTATION
That is why the UK is concentrating its efforts on implementing its obligations under existingconventions – and why we continue to urge all parties to a conflict to abide by international humanitarian law.
Indeed, we are leading by example:
We removed cluster munitions from our arsenal;
We destroyed our stockpiles of nearly 40 million sub-munitions in 2013 – more than 5 years ahead of schedule;
We invest in worldwide efforts to clear explosive remnants of war. Our funding in this area over the last year totalled some 8.4 million pounds – focusing on implementation projects in seven countries where there is most need – Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq – and benefiting over 320,000 people.
We have also helped to clear 8.5 million square metres of land – much of which is already being used by those civilians who depend on it for their livelihoods.
We have reached over 66,000 people through UK mine risk education sessions and community liaison visits.
We remain committed to developing practical approaches that aim to reduce the use, availability and negative impact of improvised explosive devices when targeted against civilians. This means continuing to work with international partners on the development and implementation of data sharing.
And finally, the UK operates one of the most rigorous arms export controls process in the world – preventing weapons and their components from falling into the hands of those who continue to target civilians in armed conflict.
So the UK is a world leader. And I say that not to boast – but because we need others to follow our example.
But let me finish with this:
As a soldier, I saw firsthand how civilians are affected by warfare.
Now, as a politician, it’s my job to try to change that.
I want to ensure that:
- The UK leads by example in compliance with international humanitarian law.
- That we encourage as many others as possible to do the same.
- That we reduce and – one day – eliminate the harm that such weapons cause to civilians.
This is not just a moral duty. Or a legal one. It is the key to building a safer, more peaceful, more prosperous world.
And I know that Roger and his colleagues – and all of you in this room – care about this issue as much as I do. Together, we can help achieve this shared goal.