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Why has our government relaxed the criteria for granting arms exports?

Weapons for sale at the DSEI arms fair

Weapons for sale at the DSEI arms fair in London. Campaign Against Arms Trade under a Creative Commons Licence

Every two years in a large exhibition centre in South East London (the same venue that will host this year’s Miss World competition) one of the largest arms-trade fairs in the world takes place. They say you can find almost any kind of weaponry there, from AK74s to fighter jets and amphibious craft. But last year’s exhibition attracted extra controversy for the range of items offered by two exhibitors in particular. These included items clearly designed for use in torture. Although these products are illegal in Britain, the sight of a popular London venue being used to promote them was disturbing. In this case, after questions were raised in parliament, the event organizers eventually told these exhibitors to withdraw their catalogues.

Rich economies have often traded moral superiority for export income and job creation when it comes to selling weapons to undemocratic regimes. But democracies should absolutely not be selling equipment to foreign governments when they have any reason to suspect it could be used to oppress those governments’ own people or to breach international law.

This is why the findings of a recent parliamentary inquiry into British arms exports are so disappointing. They indicate that the British government, without debate, has relaxed a criterion on which arms companies can gain export licences, making them even easier to attain. What is at stake is whether or not a ‘broad’ or a ‘narrow’ test is applied when weighing whether to grant a licence. Former Labour Minister Peter Hain told the inquiry that it was the policy of the previous Labour government that ‘an export licence would not be issued if the arguments for doing so were outweighed… by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression or international aggression’. In response, the Business Secretary in the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government countered that British policy has always been to apply a much narrower test of a ‘clear risk’ that the proposed export might be used for internal repression.

This may all seem like lawyerly semantics but it is serious. Consider just two recent cases in which British-made equipment is believed to have been used to suppress civilians: Hong Kong and Bahrain. To what extent could it have been proved in advance that a clear risk existed over a mere concern? When the licence has been granted it can be revoked but that, surely, is an example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Appearing before the committee on Monday (1 December), the Business Secretary argued again that policy hadn’t changed. The Committee disagreed.

The point, however, is not so much on deciding whether Britain’s policy is more or less lax than it was, but on ensuring that no further exports to regimes suspected of oppressing their own people take place. How can it be right – or even prudent – that Britain’s arms exports to the 28 countries on its own human rights blacklist have been estimated at over $18 billion?

The Committee’s report discusses some of these cases in detail: Iran, Sri Lanka, Libya, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.

But for me, it’s the section on Syria that stands out, calling the government’s claim that ‘there were no grounds for refusal’ of the sale of sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride to Syria in January 2012, ‘grossly inaccurate’. The government claimed last year that these British-made materials could not have been used in chemical weapons attacks as their licences were revoked before they had been delivered. But, again, that is not really the point. The question is why chemicals, which the government acknowledges have a purpose as core components in the making of chemical weapons, were ever sold to a regime engaged in a civil war, which had not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and which appeared on its own human rights blacklist?

So the focus should not be solely on blame but on ensuring that this kind of ‘breath-taking laxity’ is never permitted again. The sight of ISIS fighters driving around in American-built armoured Humvees should be caution enough against imprudence.  

On Christmas day the Arms Trade Treaty will come into force. Britain is a signatory and that is a good thing. But Britain is also a major exporter of military hardware and software, and it has a huge responsibility to ensure that this equipment does not fall into the wrong hands. That includes cases where there is any reason to believe it will, i.e. all those blacklisted countries.

Edward Robinson is a political analyst and environmentalist. He is standing as a Labour candidate for the British parliament in the General Election next year. @ejcrobinson

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