MPs’ damning report on arms export controls highlights flaws in UK policies

5 April 2011

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has welcomed the report of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls, which is highly critical of government arms export policies. The report found that “both the present Government and its predecessor misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in North Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression.”

CAAT supports the Committee’s calls for a review of the UK’s approach to arms sales and its recommendation to extend its review of UK arms export licences from the Middle East and North Africa to authoritarian regimes worldwide. However, CAAT believes that if a review is to be effective then it must consider in greater depth the government’s arms export promotion activity.

For the first time, the annual report raised the question of how a policy of promoting arms exports could be reconciled with “the staunch upholding of human rights.” CAAT believes that the two aims are irreconcilable and that the UK should immediately stop all weapons sales to abusive regimes.

Sarah Waldron, CAAT campaigner said:

We welcome the report. It illustrates what we have been saying for years - that the UK government’s approach to arms sales is deeply flawed. The UK routinely arms authoritarian, abusive and undemocratic regimes, then claims to be horrified when the weapons are used.

This should come as no surprise when successive governments have focused their efforts on promoting rather than limiting arms sales. Even as UK weapons were being used to suppress democracy protests, David Cameron was on an arms sales mission in the Middle East. If the government is serious about arms control and human rights it should stop using public money to promote arms sales to dictators.

Background

In 2010 the Coalition Government approved the sale of equipment including tear gas, crowd control ammunition and sniper rifles to Bahrain and Libya. In recent weeks, UK arms approved by the previous government have been used against opposition groups in both Libya and Bahrain. Arms sales have also been approved to other authoritarian regimes in the region including Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia.

The Government has since revoked 156 licences to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, a number which the Committee said “reflects the degree of policy misjudgement that has occurred.” The Committee recommends that “the Government extends immediately its review of UK arms export licences [...] to authoritarian regimes worldwide in respect of arms or components of arms which could be used for internal repression.”

Government promotion of arms sales

The UK Trade and Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) is a government unit employing approximately 160 staff to promote arms sales. UKTI DSO designated Libya one of its “Priority markets” where promotional activities are focused.

  • In 2007 the government approved the sale of water cannon and armoured cars to Libya, despite warning the equipment could be misused. The Foreign Office said the sale has been approved subject to the Libyan police receiving training. In February 2011 armoured personnel carriers supplied by the UK were used against protesters in Libya. The Leicestershire-based supplier also provided riot control training to the Libyan police. It worked with UKTI DSO to organise UK attendance at two arms fairs in Libya.
  • In 2008 the government helped secure an £85m deal for a communications system for Libyan tanks. The initiative was developed with the “full help and guidance” of the UK government’s arms promotion unit. It began discussions on the deal at the IDEX arms fair in February 2008, then ran a sales campaign with the company and the British Embassy in Tripoli. These tanks are now being bombed by UK forces.
  • In 2008, the head of UKTI DSO told an arms industry conference that there had been “high level political interventions” in Libya in support of arms sales efforts.
  • In 2009, UKTI said that a UKTI representative stationed in Libya has “met frequently with Libyan officials in unrecorded session to talk about defence and security equipment cooperation and training issues.”
  • Within just three months in 2009 the UK invited Libya to attend the DSEI arms fair in London in September; met with Libyan officials at the Libyan Defence & Security Exhibition (LibDex) in October and had two meetings with Libyan officials in the UK in November.
  • Libya received an official invitation from the UK government to attend both DSEI in 2009 and the Farnborough Airshow in 2010.
  • In November 2010 UKTI DSO staff attended LibDex and co organised the UK presence at the fair. Over half of the exhibitors were UK companies. UKTI DSO estimated the net cost of its attendance to be £55,000.

ENDS

For further information or an interview please contact CAAT’s Media Coordinator, Kaye Stearman on 020 7281 0297 or mobile 07990 673 232 or email media(at)caat·org·uk.

NOTES

  1. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) works for the reduction and ultimate abolition of the international arms trade. Around 80% of CAAT’s income is raised from individual supporters.
  2. The Committees on Arms Export Controls comprises the Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Select Committees. It published its Report: Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2011) on 5 April 2011.
  3. On 18 February 2011 the FCO Minister, Alistair Burt, announced a review of UK arms export licences to authoritarian regimes worldwide in respect of arms or components of arms which could be used for internal repression.
  4. UK Trade & Investment is responsible for promoting all UK exports. Although arms sales account for less than 1.5% of UK exports, UKTI DSO employs approximately 160 staff to promote arms sales, while UKTI’s Sectors Group employs approximately 130 staff to support 34 other industry sectors. UKTI DSO was formed in November 2008. Before this its functions were carried out by a similar unit, the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) based in the Ministry of Defence.
  5. General Dynamics United Kingdom Ltd (GDUK) provided a technical communications and data system and technical and training support for use by Libya’s mechanised Elite Brigade. The deal was supported by the government’s arms sales unit (DESO, now UKTI DSO, see note 4). GDUK said the initiative was developed with the “full help and guidance” of DESO.
  6. The current government has said it wants to do more to support arms sales. Peter Luff, Defence Equipment Minister, has said “There will be a very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to [arms sales]. There is a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There is no such embarrassment in this Government.” Foreign Secretary William Hague has also been upfront about his involvement in promoting BAE products to the rest of the world. Gerald Howarth, International Security Strategy Minister, said in November 2010: “This government has been very clear from the outset and so have I: we are proud to support the biggest defence exports drive in decades.” David Cameron was accompanied on his visit to the Middle East in February by the representatives of eight arms companies but insisted the UK “has nothing to be ashamed of.”
  7. CAAT’s “This is NOT OK” campaign challenges the government’s assertion it has a responsible arms export policy and calls for an end to the government’s support for arms sales, including the closure of DSEI, the biennial London arms fair.
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