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Risky business: UK arms trade in the spotlight

From tear gas used against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to the horrors unleashed by Israel on Gaza, Britain has questions to answer.

Nicholas Gilby
19 October 2014
Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters encounter tear gas. Demotic/PH Yang. All rights reserved.

Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters encounter tear gas. Demotic/PH Yang. All rights reserved.The UK arms trade is becoming a frequent motif within the media coverage of international crises, and has hardly ever covered itself in glory.  We have also seen UK tear gas being used against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. And in the last few months government ministers have accepted that UK arms are likely to have been used by the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza over the summer. 

In the recent cases of Gaza and Hong Kong, the government's response has been very weak. Business Secretary Vince Cable agreed to suspend 12 licences for weapons to Israel, but only if “significant hostilities resumed”. Hostilities did resume with the breakdown of the ongoing ceasefire and another week of bombardment, but still Cable refused to suspend the licences.

On the other hand, there was never even any public discussion about suspending licences to Hong Kong. On the contrary, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond argued that it was “immaterial” where Hong Kong procured the gas from, as it could just as easily have come from the US.

Instead of criticism following the event, when little can be changed, it would be better to have a system which removed the need for criticism in the first place.  How could the UK’s export licensing decision-making be improved?

The architecture of the UK's licensing criteria is not the main problem.  The government maintains lists of items for which exporting companies require a licence, and there are a variety of types of licence available.  The government has published criteria which it follows when deciding whether export licences can be issued.  The vast majority of licences are valid for only two years and can be revoked during that time.  The Government has said that licences can be refused or (if they have already been issued and not yet expired) revoked if there is ever a "clear risk" that equipment "might" be used in violation of international humanitarian law or internal repression.

The export licensing system depends on a “risk assessment” officials make at the time an export licence decision is made.  Unfortunately it is totally ill-fitted to how the world actually works.

The first problem is that weapons and weapon systems have a shelf-life far longer than the validity of the official risk assessment. This is evident in Iraq where ISIS has seized weapons that were initially provided to the Iraqi government by the Americans, as well as weapons provided by the Saudis to the Syrian rebels.  Much of the ammunition being used by ISIS is over 30 years’ old.  In 2001 and 2002 the Israelis used UK equipment in the Occupied Territories that had been supplied in the 1960s.  Self-evidently, no one can judge what the political situation in any country might be in a few years’ time, let alone decades.

The second problem is that any risk assessment almost certainly underestimates the risks that UK arms exports will be used for nefarious ends, as monitoring is extremely limited.  Sir John Stanley, Chairman of Parliament’s Committees on Arms Export Controls, responded to the government’s claim that there was no evidence that any UK-supplied equipment was used to facilitate internal repression in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring by saying:

“Of course there was no evidence. One has only to look through the 25 pages of items that we exported to see that their nature was overwhelmingly such that their origin could not be identified when they reached the specified countries. They were made up of electronics, communications equipment, cryptography, ammunition and sniper rifles. There are no Union Jacks on bullets and sniper rifles. The Foreign Secretary said that there was no evidence, but of course there was no evidence, and we did not have anyone on the ground anyway.”

The ability to suspend or revoke licences if situations change may sound good in theory but of course cannot be done if the equipment has already been exported or once the two years are up.

The export licensing system is ill-equipped to deal with the reality of weapons with long shelf-lives and a rapidly changing international political scene.  However, the system’s weaknesses are exacerbated by the context in which decisions are made.  As Campaign Against Arms Trade has pointed out for years, the Government provides huge political support for arms exports.  There is a dedicated unit (the Defence and Security Organisation within UKTI) of 130 civil servants whose job it is to promote arms exports.  They decide on the UK’s “priority markets”.  In 2014 to 2015 the priority markets for arms exports include Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Turkey and the UAE.  In less than 12 months the UK will play host to the bi-annual DSEI arms fair in east London. This is one of the biggest arms fairs in the world and will bring hundreds of major arms companies together with some of the worst dictators. The UK has in the last 12 months licensed arms for 18 of the 'countries of concern' listed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report.

The current system is overwhelmingly stacked in favour of business.  In 2013, 195 licences were refused, but almost 9,500 were issued for items on the Military List.  The UK's largest 'buyer' is the repressive tyranny of Saudi Arabia, which the government licensed £1.6 billion pounds’ worth of military licences to in 2013 alone.

So, not surprisingly, the current system can produce exceptionally poor judgement.  Export licences were issued for the export of dual-use chemicals to Syria after the civil war started.  At the start of the Arab Spring government ministers had to scramble to revoke many arms export licences for the repressive regimes of Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.  Weapons are routinely sold to governments that abuse human rights.  Furthermore, evidence of previous Israeli use in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009 of combat aircraft and armoured vehicles containing UK-supplied components was ignored as licences for the same were issued prior to the recent crisis and not revoked during it.

There is no good reason to operate a system so overwhelmingly biased in favour of business.  Arms exports are heavily subsidised by tax payers and account for less than 0.2 percent of UK jobs, a figure likely to fall rather than rise even with business as usual.  Conflict may always be a feature of human society, but such a permissive attitude towards arms exports will hardly help reduce it.

Some point to the Arms Trade Treaty as a solution to the problem, but there is little evidence to support that.  In fact the treaty text is far less strict than the UK Government’s existing criteria.  At the moment the top arms exporter in the world, the US, has not ratified it, and two other major suppliers, the Russians and Chinese, have not even signed it.  The treaty is supported by much of the arms industry itself. Earlier this year Roger Carr, the Chairman of BAE Systems, candidly told his company's AGM that he did not expect the treaty to have any impact on BAE's business.

The Committees on Arms Export Controls are right to criticise arms sales to 'countries of concern' and call for “significantly more cautious judgements”, but as the violence in Hong Kong has shown, the issue goes much wider than that.

A first step to improving matters would be for the government to identify weapon categories that are likely to be used to abuse human rights. This should be combined with a list of governments that are undemocratic in character or those with a history of human rights concerns, instability or war, with all arms sales being blocked to these countries.

Unilateral action may not lead to the abolition of the global arms trade, but each country has the option of either challenging or complying with the arms trade. If the UK is sincere in wanting to end human rights abuses then it must play its own part.

In our own society the government tightly controls access to arms – as a result very few people have them. This is because the government rightfully believes that doing so will reduce the likelihood of violence.  An extremely restrictive approach rightly applies to weapons of mass destruction.  However, when it comes to repressive states the government takes a very different and wholly irresponsible view.  It is time that the government focused on limiting arms exports rather than promoting them, and in doing so began to treat arms sales to repressive foreign governments in the same way as it does arms sales to its own citizens.

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