UK arms sales to Arab states under fire
April 5 2011
Jim Pickard and John O’Doherty
Britain has exported military equipment to 15 regimes in north Africa and the Middle East in the past two years that could be used for the repression of civilians, says a report published on Tuesday.
Since January 160 export licences have been withdrawn – relating to Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Egypt – in an exercise in “back-pedalling” by the government, the cross-departmental committees on arms export controls reveals.
The withdrawals reflect the degree of “policy misjudgement that has occurred”, the report says.
Export licence approvals since January 2009 have covered components for military helicopters in Algeria; submachineguns and teargas to Bahrain; machineguns to Egypt; and hand grenades to Jordan. British companies have also sold small arms ammunition to Syria, hand grenades, sniper rifles and teargas to Saudi Arabia and shotguns to Morocco.
Tuesday’s report will be uncomfortable reading for the government, which put trade at the heart of its diplomatic mission. Peter Luff, the defence equipment minister, has said that defence sales were no longer embarrassing and there would be a “very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to the process”.
David Cameron, prime minister, was castigated in some quarters for leading a trade mission to the region in February – which included the leaders of several arms companies – just as the Arab spring began.
Most controversial of all will be the list of arms exports to Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, including shotguns, teargas, crowd-control ammunition, and small-arms ammunition – as well as military cargo vehicles and communications equipment.
The report largely covers 2009 and early 2010, when the Labour party was in power but also accuses the current administration of failing to anticipate how the items exported under the licences could be used.
“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,” says the report from the group, which comprises MPs from four Commons committees; business, defence, foreign affairs and international development.
Sir John Stanley, Conservative MP and chairman of the committees, said ministers had been “vigorously back-pedalling on arms exports that had previously been approved”.
The committees call for the government to extend a review of arms licences granted for exports to north Africa and the Middle East to the entire world.
Alistair Burt, foreign office minister, has laid out Britain’s position, saying: “We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”
But Sir John suggested that a crackdown in Bahrain may have used British-made kit, including sniper rifles sold to the Bahraini authorities and armoured personnel carriers sold to Saudi Arabia.
Britain’s defence companies gave a cautious welcome to the report, highlighting their adherence to UK arms export regulations.
“We must obtain an export license from the government before we can export any defence equipment from the UK and this approach will continue,” said BAE Systems, the UK’s largest defence group, whose Tactica armoured vehicles were used by the Saudi Arabian National Guard in their recent incursion into Bahrain. “Responsible business conduct is fundamental to the success of BAE Systems.”
ADS Group, the aerospace and defence industry trade group, also highlighted the defence industry’s support for export controls on defence equipment.
“We welcome the government’s efforts on increasing exports across the economy and the support given to these efforts by senior ministers,” said Ian Godden, chairman of ADS Group.
“Exports of UK defence equipment are stringently policed by some of the strictest export control rules in the world that implement all the international commitments made by the government to the EU, UN and other international bodies. Industry supports the need for such a regime and has supported also the government in its efforts to persuade other countries to back the development of a global arms trade treaty at the UN that would promote best practice in export controls across the world. The UK is widely seen as a model for how to strike the right balance between effective control and facilitating legitimate exports to allies.”