UK Politics

US 'cannot rely on cluster bomb deal' with Britain

Satellite image of the US naval base at Diego Garcia
Image caption The US stores cluster bombs on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia

A former foreign office minister has said the US should not rely on any apparent secret deal to store banned cluster munitions on British territory.

Chris Bryant was responding to a leak on the Wikileaks website suggesting the US could be exempted from the ban.

The Labour MP said: "If the Americans are relying on that then they were being led up the garden path."

The Foreign Office insists it never deliberately failed to inform MPs, as the leaked cable also implied.

Britain was among more than 90 countries which signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in December 2008. The treaty bans the use of cluster bombs and prohibits signatories from assisting other countries to use, stockpile or transfer them.

Mr Bryant was involved in getting the ratification through Parliament, and says the legislation was too tight to allow exceptions.

Any exceptions "would be directly in contravention of the Act - someone would be able to take legal action," he said.

"The whole point of signing up to the treaty is that we undertook not only not to use them ourselves but to try to prevent their use by friends and allies."

Britain leases the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to the US, where the Americans have a major base in which cluster bombs were stored. The Foreign Office said there were no longer any "foreign cluster munitions stockpiles on UK territory, this includes Diego Garcia".

'Specific missions'

In April this year, the then minister for international defence and security, Baroness Taylor of Bolton, assured Parliament: "I can confirm that the US has identified its cluster munitions on UK territory as exceeding its worldwide operational planning requirements. Therefore, these cluster munitions will be removed from sites in the UK in 2010 and from all UK territories by 2013."

But one of the cables released by Wikileaks shows the Foreign Office suggested a loophole to allow the US to keep cluster bombs on British soil should be kept from Parliament.

The cable reveals that the UK offered the Americans "temporary storage exception for specific missions".

A Foreign Office spokesman responded to the publication of the cable by saying: "We reject any allegation that the FCO deliberately misled or failed in our obligation to inform Parliament."

Dropped from the air or fired from the ground, cluster munitions release small bomblets over a wide area. Critics say they have a devastating humanitarian impact - most victims are civilians; a third are children.

But the US - along with other major military powers such as Russia, China, India and Pakistan - was not a signatory.

The cable quotes a senior Foreign Office official as noting: "It would be better for the USG [US government] and HMG [Her Majesty's Government] not to reach final agreement on this temporary agreement understanding until after the CCM ratification process is completed in Parliament, so that they can tell parliamentarians that they have requested the USG to remove its cluster munitions by 2013, without complicating/muddying the debate by having to indicate that this request is open to exceptions."

The cable also reveals that most of the US cluster munitions are being stored on US vessels off Diego Garcia, apparently to circumvent the ban on the weapons remaining on British soil after 2013.

Investigation call

It states that the head of the Foreign Office's Security Policy Group, Nicolas Pickard, "reconfirmed that off-shore storage on US ships would still be permitted".

Mr Bryant said he doubted that Mr Pickard had been quoted accurately, but said it should be investigated.

"If a Foreign Office official were to have said that Parliament needed to be circumvented in any shape or form that would be a very serious matter.

"That person would want to be considering their position. But it is a very big if," he said.

"If I were still in government, I would be wanting to check through all the paperwork to see if there is a British note and if the British note said the same thing."

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