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UK arms sales to Libya - stop, start, stop and start again

The UK's Campaign Against Arms Trade wants to see an immediate stop on arms sales to repressive regimes, the closure of UKTI DSO and an end to all taxpayer support for the arms industry.

Kaye Stearman
6 December 2011

Libya provides a fascinating case study of UK government policies on selling arms to dictatorships. It demonstrates that the UK happily sells arms to repressive regimes until it is prohibited from doing so, while preparing the ground for new sales when the barriers are lifted.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Libya was treated as a pariah state, because of its aggressive and unpredictable activities at home and abroad. In the late 1990s, the Libyan stance became more conciliatory, for example taking responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and western countries softened their stance. Tony Blair's so-called "deal in the desert" with Colonel Gaddafi in March 2004 opened the way for the deals that really mattered - contracts in oil, construction and arms. The arms embargo was duly lifted in October 2004. 

Opening up Libya

The UK wooed the Libyans with ardour in the following years. Blair continued to visit Libya, signing an Accord on a Defence Cooperation and Defence Industrial Partnership in 2007. Prince Andrew made three visits. The recent Woolf report revealed that arms giant BAE seconded a staff member to assist Saif Gaddafi's admission to the London School of Economics - the staffer was seconded to Saif's foundation from 2004-06. BAE later stated that the aim was to help familiarise British businesses to deal with Libya and not to sell arms.

In 2006, the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) set up an office in Tripoli to facilitate arms company activities. Its successor, UKTI Defence & Security Organisation (DSO) designated Libya a "priority market". In a speech on 21 May 2009, DSO head, Richard Paniguian, said: "There have been high-level political interventions - often behind the scenes - in places like Libya, Oman, India and Algeria. The key here is consistent support over time, delivered at key points in a campaign. You'd expect us to deliver Whitehall support, and we are doing that."

The wooing of Libya continued under the Coalition government - policy did not change. Libyan top brass were invited to attend Farnborough International Airshow in 2010, just as, under Labour, they had been invited to the Defence Security Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair in London in 2009 (although the media attention on Megrahi's release kept the Libyans away).  

Arms exports to Libya

The end of the arms embargo saw sales begin to flow, although not as fast or as frequently as companies had hoped. 2005 was a good year with £41 million worth of deals but the following years were much leaner. Then, in 2009, over £27 million military and dual-use materials were licenced for sale. In 2010 the figure reached £217 million.

Some contracts were large. MBDA, in which BAE has a 37.5% stake, was awarded a £147 million contract for anti-tank missiles and £122 million for a related communications system. In 2007 the UK arm of UK General Dynamics signed an £85 million contract for tank communications systems with the ‘Khamis Brigade’, the elite unit led by Colonel Gaddafi's son Kham.

Many licences were for smaller items. For example, in the third quarter of 2010 military equipment approved for export included wall and door breaching projectile launchers and ammunition for crowd control,  small arms and tear gas/irritants. In fact, "ammunition" accounted for £3.2 million  of the £4.7 million of military items licensed. In the final quarter of 2010 almost half a million pounds of small arms were exported. Not one individual licence was refused. 

These last months of 2010 were busy ones for arms exporters and their DSO allies in Tripoli. The UK exhibited at two arms fairs in Libya in October and November, issuing temporary licences for the exhibits. Such was their enthusiasm that the UK had the largest pavilion at Tripoli's Libyan Defence and Security Exhibition (LibDex). Top army brass were invited to visit the UK to view military equipment.  No doubt exporters were looking forward to further buoyant sales. 

Revolt in Libya 

In February 2011 anti-Gaddafi protests began in Benghazi. Later that month the UK government announced that it had revoked eight arms licences previously approved for Libya, together with licences for Bahrain, because they were being used for "internal repression". No matter - the well-equipped Khamis Brigade had more than enough weaponry to massacre civilians and rebel fighters in Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. 

On 17 March, the UN placed an international arms embargo on Libya and UK arms sales were suspended. Even so, the NATO "air cover" provided to protect the "no-fly zone" provided a showcase for weaponry, including the new Eurofighter Typhoon, flying in combat for the first time. Ironically, the NATO airpower was focused on destroying much of the weaponry earlier sold to Libya by the UK and other EU countries. 

So is this the end for UK arms sales to Libya? It would seem reasonable to assume that with the end of the war in October that arms sales would cease. After all, the last thing that a country just emerging from a brutal dictatorship, with thousands of dead and injured civilians, with wrecked infrastructure and awash with looted and unregistered weapons, would need would be more arms. Wrong on all counts.

Resuming arms sales

Several conferences have been held in London to encourage international businesses to trade with and  invest in Libya. UKTI are back in Tripoli and Libya is once again regarded as a prime market, whether for weapons or for security equipment. UKTI DSO says that it has been assured by Libya's Transitional National Council that contracts signed by the Gaddafi regime will be honoured. UKTI DSO has even organised an arms trade mission to Libya in February 2012.

Government ministers are gung ho for arms sales. The perpetually belligerent junior defence minister Gerald Howarth told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference: "We liberated the Iraqis from a tyrant, we liberated Libya from a tyrant, frankly, I want to see UK business benefit from the liberation we give to their people."

The British public would do better to listen to a former Conservative defence minister, Sir John Stanley, now Chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), the parliamentary watchdog that oversees the arms exports. In a scathing report in April, he stated: "both the present government and its predecessor misjudged the risks that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in North Africa and the Middle East might be used for international repression" and called for a review of the UK's approach to arms exports.

The case of Libya shows the incompatibility of government policies - on the one hand supposedly nurturing human rights and on the other supporting arms sales. Campaign Against Arms Trade wants to see an immediate stop on arms sales to repressive regimes, the closure of UKTI DSO and an end to all taxpayer support for the arms industry. 

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