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Britain’s Arms Trade

Britain’s Arms Trade
by Lord David Alton

The spectre of British manufactured weapons and munitions being used to crush dissent and to wound, maim and kill pro democracy demonstrators in North Africa and the Gulf brings great shame to this country. Elsewhere, especially in fragile or destabilised regions of Africa, weapons which originate from Europe, the USA and China, allow war lords to rule by terror.

Small arms are all too often the weapons of mass destruction – with more than one person dying every minute, somewhere in the world, as a result of armed violence. Armed violence costs Africa $US 19 billion a year – roughly what is spent annually on aid to Africa.

I suspect that in an effort to blur the picture – and to protect the arms manufacturers – Governments blind themselves to the nature and scale of arms sales, and the consequences. It is quietly whispered that if we didn’t provide the weapons someone else will. Britain’s arms industry is said to be worth £35 billion.

But it’s one thing sell arms to democracies for defensive purposes and quite another to sell them to make a killing by selling them to authoritarian dictatorships, such as Libya.

I recently asked the Government what military equipment and armaments were sold to Libya by UK manufacturers in each of the past ten years; what was the value of those sales; and what considerations were taken into account before sales were permitted. I was staggered to be told in a ministerial reply “The Government does not hold details of actual sales.” Well, shouldn’t they?

They do keep details of export licensing decisions and these can be viewed on the Strategic Export Controls web site: https://www.exportcontroldb.berr.gov.uk/eng/fox Go to the site and you will see that Britain rightly has a policy to deny arms to countries which “trade in certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The web site makes for fascinating reading – revealing the hundreds of millions of pounds that are generated by the arms trade. In one short three month period Saudi Arabia – which has been responsible for plenty of cruel and inhuman punishments – spent almost £30 million in the UK on new military hardware and on the enhancement of their military capacity. In another three month period, over £9 million was paid by Libya on military equipment – much of it to enhance the capability of the country’s military aircraft. Presumably these are the same planes which have been bombing civilians and protestors – and would be used against the west in any attempt to impose a no-fly zone.

Until 2004 the EU had an arms embargo on Libya. The moment it was lifted it was like the 1897 Klondike gold rush.

France promised fighter jets, military helicopters and armoured vehicles. The UK provided the Libyan Police with armoured personnel carriers and tear gas. Belgium sold small arms and what they called “less than lethal weaponry” – and the 2010 Arms Fair in Tripoli was dominated by UK companies. According to the UN, weapons sold to Libya by Spain, Belgium and Bulgaria were then re-exported to Darfur – notwithstanding a UN arms embargo. Around 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, 2 million people displaced.

In media interviews, Government Ministers have said that they will review the criteria for trading in arms – but it’s not the criteria that are the problem. The problem is that the risk assessments are not rigorous enough.

The problem is that Government still hides behind the mantra that sales depend on “the prevailing circumstances at the time of application.” – as Ministers stated in reply to my recent parliamentary question.

Without expecting Ministers to be clairvoyants they do need to have some sense of what the future might hold. Do our sale of weapons in the Gulf and North Africa imply that we never anticipated that one day democracy activists might seek to assert themselves and to challenge authoritarian rule? If so, it doesn’t say much for our intelligence gathering or for our diplomacy.

The problem is that too many people deploy the dissembling argument that if we are not selling weapons then others will take our place. They believe that Britain’s economic interests must trump all others. Even that argument is flawed when set against all the other innovative technology which we could be manufacturing and selling instead.

If there is force in the argument that others will simply take our place as international quartermasters, it is best addressed by Britain using all its skills and clout to bring about the creation of a legally binding global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and to sign up immediately to domestic legislation tightening controls over the re-export of arms. My own Private Member’s Bill – the Re-Export Control Bill – passed all its stages in the House of Lords and has been laid before the Commons by the Conservative MP, Tony Baldry, a leading Anglican and a senior Church Commissioner in Parliament.

To date, officials in Vince Cable’s Business Department have been intent on blocking the Re-Export Bill – so it will only go through if there is a grass-roots campaign by the churches and others to create parliamentary pressure – or if Ministers are prepared to override their officials and give it a fair wind. France, Germany and the U.S. all have re-export provisions in their laws, and so should we. Cardinal O’Brien and Lord Mackay, the former Lord Chancellor, are among those who have expressed welcome public support for the Bill.

The Re-Export Control Bill is only a small part of what needs to be done.

The big prize must be the enactment of an ATT – first proposed by Nobel Peace Laureates in 1995.

Negotiations on the framework for a new Treaty will conclude at the United Nations in 2012.

There are a number of States who are looking to their own interests or who will seek to delay or weaken the Treaty. The UK has been a significant supporter of the Treaty but during the next twelve months it urgently needs to prioritise support for the text of the draft treaty. Government needs to build a formidable coalition throughout the international community and among non-governmental organisations.

China’s involvement will be critical. Chinese nationals who have been caught up in Africa’s violence are seeing first hand why arms dealing must be curtailed. And China’s decision, at the Security Council, to refer Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court, for crimes against humanity, was hugely significant.

We need to build international alliances – with China and many others.

The International Development Department should bring its know-how on arms dealing, conflict, corruption, and sustainable development to the forefront of the argument. The Ministry of Defence should engage with counterparts in other ministries and armed forces to give the Treaty muscle and, along with our diplomats and trade envoys, ensure that the ATT becomes a reality. As one of the biggest global arms exporters Britain is well-placed to take the lead and has a moral duty to do so.

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